From electro to tech-house and everything in between,
countless electronic dance tracks have made use of vintage-style arcade
game leads as their main hook. Let’s explore the concepts behind this
approach to sound design.
When these games first debuted, CPUs in home and arcade
machines alike were woefully slow by today’s standards. Most of their
horsepower was spent on graphics, so composers were limited in their
palette of sounds. With digital resources at a premium, sound designers
were limited to one waveform: square. Why? The shape of a square wave is
most easily represented by two states—on and off—and that in turn is
most easily represented as ones and zeroes. That’s why the first video
game soundtracks consisted entirely of creative uses for square waves.
Click images below to enlarge.
For a basic video game lead, start with a
single-oscillator square wave sound with the filter wide open and the
volume envelope set to a gate shape: attack, decay and release times at
zero and sustain level at maximum. Then, in the spirit of this
experiment, play the most child-like riff you can compose. Here’s
Reason’s Subtractor configured for that sound.
Doubling in octaves is remarkably effective for squeezing
the most sonic range out of your material. Back in the day, video game
composers relied heavily on stacking square waves in octaves in order to
achieve different sonic textures. The web audio example demonstrates
three passes on the same riff, each with square waves at different
octave intervals. Shown here, Ableton’s Operator synth has a waveform
called “Square D” that recreates the harmonic spectrum of digital square
waves extremely well.
Arpeggiated riffs figured prominently in arcade games,
both as part of the musical score and as incidental sounds. Ableton
Live’s arpeggiator is an incredibly powerful tool for this type of sound
design, thanks to its huge array of patterns, along with subtler
parameters like step size and gate length. Getting started is easy: Set
the arpeggiator style to “Pinky UpDown,” grab a fistful of notes, and
start tweaking the knobs in real time. You’ll be amazed at the results.